If we won’t hold our politicians accountable, perhaps we’ll hold our technology accountable. We’d better start somewhere soon, before America is reduced to an unrecognizable Tower of Babel. This week, there were signs of hope for this, but also signals that the worst might be yet to come. I’ll start with the bad news.
Perhaps the single weakest, laziest way to make an argument is to employ the rhetorical device, “Some people are saying” or its derivatives. Use of the phrase quite specifically means you are spreading rumors. It also means you don’t have the courage to even stand behind what you are saying yourself — the correct translation of “Some are saying” is usually, “I think…” It’s intellectually dishonest.
Language like that has no place in our political sphere when we are trying to solve real problems. In fact, it has no place in a 4th grade essay. It’s lazy; a teacher would insist the pupil at least find one fact and one source for attribution. Still, we’ve come to expect “some are saying” from our president, who trades in such innuendo. But this week, this weak phrase was uttered by his chief of staff, John Kelly, while intentionally spreading innuendo that Dreamers who didn’t register for DACA were too lazy to get off their asses or up from a couch. There are in fact ways to find out why some DACA-eligible young people didn’t register. Kelly chose none of them and went with “some people say” instead. For good measure, he also threw under the bus a set of weak and quite literally defenseless people in order to score a small political point.
For those who’ve never spent time in D.C., this point might be missed. There, winning is everything. Winning elections, winning TV appearances, winning donors. On both sides of the aisle. Political operatives spend years trying to “win” on this legislative phrase or that office perk. People offten arrive in DC with good intentions, but pretty soon, most are willing to sell their soul — and America – for even the tiniest scoreboard win. It goes by the moniker “tough.” It’s vulgar, but that’s Washginton, which now seems to be rewarding vulgarity.
Sadly, inspired by Trump’s apparent success with the “some people say” rhetorical device, this kind of intellectual laziness is seeping into our discourse. Why? It seems to work. As we’ve seen, rumor mongering and extreme opinions win the day on social media, which continues to dominate our body politic. It’s all about scoring points, landing zingers, loading up on exclamation points, no matter the human cost.
A group of former technology executives were in New York this week announcing a project designed at stemming this tide, calling it the Center for Humane Technology.
“Facebook created a business model that essentially made people who believe [conspiracy theories] more valuable,” said Roger McNamee, an early advisor to Mark Zuckerberg, according to Mashable. “It was in [Facebook’s] interest to appeal to fear and anger.”
In an interview with The New York Times earlier, he made a similar, more pointed argument.
“Facebook appeals to your lizard brain — primarily fear and anger,” he said. “And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment.”
People are saying that services like YouTube and Twitter are guilty of the same thing.
Just kidding: Here’s an amazing, well-sourced investigation into how YouTube’s algorithms favor crazy people (Fiction is outperforming reality); and here’s a story about how folks making unfounded accusations on Twitter led to a gunman showing up at a pizza place down the block from me.
The Center for Humane Technology argues that “our society is being hijacked by technology.” Apps and gadgets are designed to make us addicts; they rob us of sleep made us restless; it targets vulnerable children. I’ve ringing these alarm bells for years in The Restless Project.
More to my point here: “Social media rewards outrage, false facts, and filter bubbles – which are better at capturing attention – and divides us so we can no longer agree on truth,” the center says. And that has left a hole so large that Russian bots can drive right through by the millions.
One thing that constantly amazes me: People who say the most divisive things online are often perfectly reasonable, caring folks in person. People who say things that might be considered anti-immigrant are perfectly welcoming to the immigrant next door, for example. As a reporter, I’ve had this experience hundreds of times. An interaction that begins with spit and vinegar becomes kind and warm when I pick up the phone and talk, or better still, meet someone in person. There are very few bad people. There are some, but very few. Tech just seems to bring out the worst in us, the way cars turn perfectly calm suburbanites into raving lunatics capable of road rage.
There’s no one answer to this problem. There are many. Companies need to take responsibility. Programmers need to speak up and do the right thing. Legislators need to enact common sense regulation, such as requiring companies to identity bots and buyers of political ads. I’d like to think true leaders have to back away from the cliff and start appealing to our better selves, even if that means not “winning” every single battle. I don’t hold out much hope for that at the moment.
So most important, people have to demand something better. Like all addicts, people have to a) admit they have a problem and b) be willing to change on their own. That means limiting kids’ tech time. It means limiting your own tech time. It also means taking steps to stop the madness, like vowing to never spread rumors or use phrases like, “Some people are saying.”
It’s going to have to be a grass roots movement. Discuss, disagree, suggest all you want. But if you even find yourself using phrases like Trumpkin or Libtard, or you even find yourself giggling at them, then you are part of the problem. If you are willing to make broad statements about whole groups of people (they are lazy…they are deplorable…they cling to guns and religion) then you , absolutely, share in the blame for the mess we are in.
Often when I read this kind of rhetoric, I feel like I could substitute “Red Sox” and “Yankees” for Democrats and Republicans. We’re just yelling at each other’s teams. As Seinfeld would say, it’s pretty stupid to root for laundry and it’s time we stopped. It’s also time we stopped falling for technology that brings out the worst in us.